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Jennifer Cameron-Smith "Expect the Unexpected" (ACT, Australia)
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Poor Man's Wealth
Poor Man's Wealth
by Rod Usher
Edition: Paperback

5.0 étoiles sur 5 ‘Patience is not one of our national boasts, but I ask for some.’, Jan. 29 2015
This review is from: Poor Man's Wealth (Paperback)
El Gordo, ‘The Fat One’, is the mayor of Higot, a small village in an unnamed Spanish-speaking country under military rule, and the narrator of this book. Higot is a dusty backwater, barely sustained by its tobacco crops and it does not attract visitors. It doesn’t even have a bus stop, unlike its neighbour Juar. And perhaps Higot would have ceased to exist, except for the chance arrival of an Englishman with a large collection of books. El Gordo came to know Mr Giles de Courcy (‘Mr Giles’) quite well, and after Mr Giles died in the UK, he inherited the 23,678 books left in Higot. Reading through these books undoubtedly improves El Gordo’s English, it also gives him an idea, a way of diversifying the Higot economy by attracting tourists.

‘No, the fear of many of these citizens is that Higot has all its eggs in one paper bag.’

El Gordo realises that Higot cannot have its own Loch Ness Monster, but a sleep disorder that has citizens falling asleep in public? El Gordo has read about the sleep disorder cataplexy, and he’s seen Marisol Ruiz fall asleep over her typewriter in Juar. In fact, Marisol’s narcolepsy has been frequently observed. Now, that could be a real possibility: the residents of Higot faking syndrome that causes them to sleep in any situation at any time of day. El Gordo is far too smart to suggest this plan himself, and so the Marisol committee is formed to manage the scheme. A group of townspeople are recruited to sleep in public hoping the trend will take off. Buses full of tourists start to arrive, and buy the espadrilles, cheese wheels and novelty pencil holders, but can the hoax work in the longer term?

‘In the dictionary next to me I have noticed how close together are the words calm and calamity. And in life.’

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel: the layers of detail of the village of Higot and its inhabitants, El Gordo’s idiosyncratic use of English as he tells the story, the possibility that he may not be entirely reliable. But how can we tell? El Gordo’s is the only account we have of events. Everyone depicted in the story has character, many have nicknames. The hoax (the word ‘burla’ is used in the book, which translates as ‘joke’) has some unintended consequences as well, one being a romantic interest for El Gordo. What will be Higot’s fate? Will the road into Higot ever be repaired? Will El Gordo find happiness? You’ll find some answers in the novel, but others may need to be imagined.

This is Rod Usher’s third novel and while each is very different I’ve loved them all.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Lewis Carroll: The Man and his Circle
Lewis Carroll: The Man and his Circle
by Edward Wakeling
Edition: Hardcover
Prix : CDN$ 35.43
13 used & new from CDN$ 35.43

4.0 étoiles sur 5 ‘The last one hundred years have seen enough biographies of Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson).., Jan. 28 2015
.. to make another seem superfluous.’

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (27 January 1832 to 14 January 1898), better known by his pen name Lewis Carroll was an Anglican deacon, logician, mathematician, photographer and writer. It’s almost 150 years since, on 26 November 1865, ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ was first published in the UK. It’s a book that has brought a lot of joy to at least four generations in my own family, as have other of his literary works. I’m not sure, though, that any of us have read any of his mathematical works.
Many biographies have been written about Lewis Carroll, but this one is different. Edward Wakeling has had an interest in Lewis Carroll since 1975, and now owns one of the finest collections of Carroll material in private hands. By drawing on Lewis Carroll’s voluminous correspondence, Edward Wakeling’s biography looks at Lewis Carroll from within his own social circle. Lewis Carroll’s correspondence numbered almost 100,000 items by the time of his death, and of those almost 6,000 (of which 4,000 have never before been published) are in Edward Wakeling’s personal database. Who did Lewis Carroll correspond with? Was his world as child-centric, as some have claimed?

‘From childhood, Dodgson had a natural flair for telling amusing and entertaining stories, and with a large number of siblings at his disposal he had a readymade audience.’

From reading this book it becomes clear just how wide Lewis Carroll’s circle was. His correspondents included many of the leading academics, artists, composers, musicians and publishers of the period, as well as some members of the royal family. There are also some delightful letters to and from children. I enjoyed reading about Lewis Carroll’s photography hobby, which he gave up in 1880, and his efforts to obtain the best illustrations for his books.

There’s a wealth of detail in this book, and while the information provided is fascinating, it is neither a quick nor an easy read. Until I read this book, I had little knowledge about Lewis Carroll’s life other than a few biographical details, and that his real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. I’d read occasional views that his interest in children was ‘unhealthy’ but was unaware of the background to such claims. Reading this book, while it seems clear that Carroll liked children and they liked him, his friendships seem to have been the kind of friendships that many of us were once freely able to enjoy with adults who were not family. How sad it is that times have changed. How important it is that we look at such friendships through the prism of the times in which they flourished.

‘This book is an attempt to confound some of the more outrageous biographies that have been published in the last half-century, where the writers have not availed themselves of the primary sources that survive and have indulged in all manner of speculation and mythmaking.’

I enjoyed reading this biography, and I now want to reread ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’. I may not be able to recapture the pure magic of my first read about 50 years ago, but I know that I will enjoy it even more knowing a little more about the man who wrote it.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher I B Tauris for the opportunity to read an advance copy of this book.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Great Zoo of China
The Great Zoo of China
Offered by Simon & Schuster Canada, Inc.
Prix : CDN$ 15.99

5.0 étoiles sur 5 ‘Here, there be dragons.’, Jan. 27 2015
After forty years, and in the greatest zoo ever constructed, the Chinese government is ready to share a secret with the world. A small group of VIPs and journalists is taken to a secret location deep within China. Among them is Dr Cassandra Jane ‘CJ’ Cameron, a reptile expert and a writer for the National Geographic, and her brother Hamish, a photographer. Everything is big, everything is new, and the visitors are assured that they will be safe. But what is so special about this zoo, what animals could possibly be so unusual?

‘Welcome to our zoo. Welcome to the Great Dragon Zoo of China.’

The Chinese have discovered dragons and, because they’ve seen Jurassic Park, they are aware of the potential dangers that dragons might pose. The first part of this novel provides some information about the dragons, the zoo and its safeguards. It’s an amazing world, and the Chinese appear to have thought of everything.

But…

Just as the scene is set, things start to go wrong. Action? There’s plenty of action: lots of buildings, cars, trucks and cable cars are destroyed and plenty of people are, gulp, devoured. And when CJ Cameron figures out that the dragons have a specific objective in mind, the tempo increases further. The race is on to stop the dragons, and CJ can only rely on a few people to help. The Chinese are into damage control, and they certainly don’t want the world to know about what’s going on in the Zoo. So, can CJ triumph? Will anyone survive? And what about the dragons?

This novel is jam-packed with action, with plausible (and not so plausible) possibilities. There are explanations that will please some and annoy others, our hero CJ Cameron is suitably awesome, and there’s a really nice dragon as well. What more could a reader want?

I really enjoyed the pure escapism this novel afforded me. I liked the way that Mr Reilly constructed the story, and while a few aspects had me rolling my eyes in disbelief, I can cope with unreality in my fiction reads. While the novel clearly owes something to Jurassic Park (which is apparently Mr Reilly’s favourite novel), this is no pale imitation. No, this is Jurassic Park on steroids because, clearly, dragons are much bigger, stronger and smarter than dinosaurs.

If you are looking for a fast-paced escapist read, you may enjoy ‘The Great Zoo of China’. It’s not great literature, but so what? It’s fun (as long as you’re outside the Zoo).

Note: My thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read an advance copy of this book.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Look Who's Back
Look Who's Back
by Timur Vermes
Edition: Paperback
11 used & new from CDN$ 16.99

4.0 étoiles sur 5 ‘What irony: yesterday I was repositioning the 12th Army; today it was magazine racks.’, Jan. 26 2015
This review is from: Look Who's Back (Paperback)
In 2011, Adolf Hitler wakes up on a patch of wasteland in Berlin. He’s wearing his uniform, although it’s spattered with cake crumbs and smells of petrol. Things seem to have changed: where is Eva Braun, what happened to the war and how on earth can a woman be running the country? Hitler fails to find his bunker and takes up temporary residence in a newspaper kiosk. He is discovered there by some TV producers, who consider him to be a brilliant Hitler impersonator. Soon he becomes the star of their satirical program. His rants against foreigners and the welfare state are both consumed as comedy and secretly admired by a German public fed up with modern politics.

‘The problem with these parliamentarians is that they simply haven’t understood a thing.’

I felt guilty about enjoying this novel, but the impact of modern technology on Hitler had me laughing out loud. The ‘Interworknet’ clearly provided magnificent opportunities for propaganda, while ‘Vikipedia’ helps fill in some of the blanks in his knowledge. Imagine the use he could put these tools to in creating a new Reich? Hitler considers he may be the only sane man left in the world: mad women pick up dog excrement in bags, the youth has no respect and the airwaves are filled with garbage. What on earth has the world come to?

‘The slogan reads: ‘It wasn’t all bad.’ I think we can work with that.’

Satire can be funny, but sometimes it cuts close to the bone. And for very many people, Hitler and humour cannot share a sentence. But if this novel is a humorous look at how Hitler might find the world over sixty years after his death, it’s also a reminder that people like Hitler can (and do) fit into contemporary society. Which isn’t funny at all.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Jamie Quinn Mystery Collection: Box Set Books 1-3
Jamie Quinn Mystery Collection: Box Set Books 1-3
Prix : CDN$ 3.25

3.0 étoiles sur 5 ‘Divorce lawyers always have tissues handy - it’s a tool of the trade you don’t learn about in law school.’, Jan. 25 2015
There are three short stories in this boxed set: ‘Death by Didgeridoo’, ‘The Case of the Killer Divorce’ and ‘Peril in the Park’. I read and reviewed ‘Death by Didgeridoo’ separately some time ago, so will only focus on the other two stories here.

In ‘The Case of the Killer Divorce’, Jamie Quinn has now returned to her family law practice following the death of her mother. But a bitter divorce case turns into a murder investigation, and Jamie’s client Becca quickly becomes the prime suspect.

‘If you try to take my kids away, I swear to God, Joe, I will kill you.’

Jamie needs help to try to find out the truth, and who better to ask than her favourite private investigator, Duke Broussard? Duke’s methods may sometimes be unconventional, and may sometimes skirt the law, but the man usually get results. Jamie is also hoping he can help her find her long-lost father.

Did Becca kill Joe? Will Jamie find her father? How many female friends does Duke Broussard really have? Some of these questions will be answered in this fast moving and humorous story and, naturally, new questions will arise. It wouldn’t be Jamie Quinn otherwise, would it?

In ‘Peril in the Park’, someone is making life very difficult for Jamie’s boyfriend Kip Simons. Kip is the new director of Broward County parks, and attacks of vandalism quickly become the least of his problems. Sure, there are some disgruntled staff, but there’s a lot of politicking around a new development as well. And some one has Jamie and Kip under surveillance.

‘I never realized how many decisions were made behind closed doors,’ I remarked, ‘And how the vote is just for show.’

But the politics of decision-making become secondary when a dead man is found in the park, and Kip goes missing. Can Jamie and Duke Broussard find Kip? And who is behind what’s happening at the park? At the same time, Jamie is also trying to find out more information about her father, and life is becoming complicated. Especially when Duke reunites with one of his ex-wives.

‘Now my life is anything but boring, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.’

I’m a big fan of Ms Venkataraman’s writing, and the Jamie Quinn short stories are a quick and comparatively light read. The path to justice is never uncomplicated, and it isn’t always easy to identify exactly what is going on. There are some interesting distractions as well: Jamie’s search for her father is one, and Duke Broussard’s adventures are another. There’s a fourth Jamie Quinn story on the way as well!

Note: I was offered, and accepted, a copy of this box set for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Age of Miracles
The Age of Miracles
by Karen Thompson Walker
Edition: Paperback
Prix : CDN$ 14.40
12 used & new from CDN$ 1.54

4.0 étoiles sur 5 ‘But the past is long and the future is short.’, Jan. 24 2015
This review is from: The Age of Miracles (Paperback)
Julia is an eleven-year-old girl who lives in California. Some weeks before her birthday, the world seems to be 'slowing'. By the time this ‘slowing’ is confirmed by experts, a day has lengthened to 24 hours and 56 minutes. The days continue to lengthen and this dramatically changes life on Earth. People have different reactions to this: some try to adapt, some, like Julia's grandfather, believe slowing is a government hoax and others, like Julia's best friend Hanna's family believe it to be God's wrath and return to their hometowns.

After weeks of chaos, the American government announces the adoption of 'clock time', in which the world functions as normal according to the 24-hour clock, regardless of whether it is day or night outside. Some people reject clock time altogether, like Julia's neighbour Sylvia, and set their lives according to the sun. Such people, called 'real timers', are discriminated against by ‘normal’ people. Meanwhile, the longer days start to have psychological effects on people: Julia's mother starts suffering from a slowing-related disorder (referred to as 'the syndrome', its effects vary from person to person), crime rates increase and some people seem to become more impulsive. And then Julia's grandfather goes missing on her twelfth birthday.

Julia tries to adapt to her new life, but when her grandfather is found dead, and her boyfriend Seth is almost killed by an aggressive form of the ‘the syndrome’ life is tough. Seth’s father takes him to Mexico, where the symptoms are supposedly less fatal. Julia receives one eMail from Seth after he arrives in Mexico. But then, after a power failure, the government only allows electricity to be used for life-supporting activities. Julia never receives another eMail from Seth, and the letters she sends to the address he gave her go unanswered.

Years later, a day now stretches to weeks and clearly the human race will soon become extinct. The government launches ‘The Explorer’, a time capsule of memories of life on earth. Julia still hopes that one day she’ll be reunited with Seth, and remembers the words they once wrote on wet cement one summer day: ‘We were here’.

This novel has haunted me for quite a while. It’s partly because of the reminder that the Earth is so often taken for granted, but also because so much of our biology and behaviour seems predicated on a diurnal cycle of a certain length. I would not like to be in Julia’s world.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Emperor Waltz
The Emperor Waltz
by Philip Hensher
Edition: Hardcover
16 used & new from CDN$ 22.26

4.0 étoiles sur 5 ‘We exist in society and we make our own societies as we go.’, Jan. 23 2015
This review is from: The Emperor Waltz (Hardcover)
In 1889, Johann Strauss II composed the Emperor Waltz (originally called ‘Hand in Hand’) as a symbolic toast to friendship from the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef to the German Kaiser Willhelm II. The waltz was first performed in Berlin on 21 October 1889. It is a beautiful piece of music which, referred to twelve times in the novel, provides one of the leitmotifs in this sprawling novel.

There are a number of different people, settings and stories (divided into books) in this novel. They are, at least in my reading, loosely (but differently) connected. References to the Emperor Waltz link a number of the nine books within the novel, while references to red hair provide a different type of connection between some books, as does a reference to towels and bed linen to a couple of the stories.

The three main stories in the novel are set in Weimar in 1922, involving Christian; in London in the 1980s involving Duncan; and in a Roman city in Africa in 203 CE involving Perpetua, a merchant’s daughter who is put to death for converting to Christianity. There are other stories as well.

How are these very different stories linked? Is this a novel or a collection of loosely linked short stories or novellas? Does it matter?

For me, the novel is thematically connected, but the themes I identified each have a shadow. Belonging, freedom, friendship and joy are the positive themes, countered by alienation, betrayal, capture and sacrifice. Each of the main stories contains both elements, none of the major characters is without flaw, none of the stories satisfyingly complete.

I found it very difficult to put this book down once I started reading it. I kept looking for more substantial links between the different stories, and hoping for different resolutions. In general, I didn’t find what I was looking for, but what I did find was held my attention. And made me wonder about the various ways we identify and choose (or not) our own paths in the world.

Note: my thanks to NetGalley and the publisher Fourth Estate for providing me with a copy of this book.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph
Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph
by Jan Swafford
Edition: Hardcover
Prix : CDN$ 31.98
27 used & new from CDN$ 31.98

4.0 étoiles sur 5 ‘Without suffering there is no struggle, without struggle no victory, without victory no crown.’, Jan. 22 2015
Ludwig van Beethoven (born c16 December 1770 - 26 March 1827) was a great composer and pianist. He remains one of the most famous and influential of all composers, with his best known compositions including 9 symphonies, 5 piano concertos, 32 piano sonatas and 16 string quartets. His Ninth Symphony is my single most favourite piece of music, but it is time for me to move beyond the symphonies into his other works.
I remember learning a little about Beethoven during my compulsory music classes at high school. I remembered feeling great sympathy for him: I’d suffered periods of intermittent deafness myself as a consequence of infection, and thought how much more tragic a loss of hearing must be for someone whose life was music. But I never really took the time to learn much more about Beethoven until I fell in love with his Ninth Symphony about twenty years ago.

In this book, Jan Swafford, himself a composer and author, has tried to present the facts about Beethoven, without the romanticised myths that started growing about him while he was still alive. While Beethoven was a great artist, it seems that he had a very limited capacity for life outside music. He was idealistic and irascible, and at times quite petty. He quarrelled with his friends and benefactors, and spent many years in a bitter custody battle with his sister-in-law over his nephew Karl. He fell in love with women who were unattainable, and he never married.

‘For well and ill, what Beethoven had been in his teens had not fundamentally changed. He had never grown into social maturity. He was never able to understand anything through another person’s eyes, could see the world only though his own lense.’

For me (a non-musician) the most interesting parts of the book were those that provided biographic detail, and properly set Beethoven’s life in the history of the times (which quickly moved from the Enlightenment to revolution and war across Europe). Was Beethoven a revolutionary? Mr Swafford portrays him as a composer whose work evolved, whose work drew from earlier composers including Mozart and Hayden. Intriguing.
I felt sorry for Beethoven as he battled his progressive deafness, his ill health, his increasing paranoia. I may not understand the technical aspects of his music, but I love listening to it. Especially the Ninth Symphony.

‘The gulf between Beethoven’s music and his life, the exaltation and the darkness, only widened in his age.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Undertaker's Daughter
The Undertaker's Daughter
by Kate Mayfield
Edition: Hardcover
Prix : CDN$ 17.99
26 used & new from CDN$ 17.98

4.0 étoiles sur 5 ‘So many different things could happen in a single day in the funeral home.’, Jan. 21 2015
In 1959, when Kate Mayfield was in kindergarten, her family moved to Jubilee, Kentucky so that her parents could open their own funeral home. In this memoir, Kate revisits the first 20 or so years of her life, much of it spent in the three storey house which was both a family home (upstairs) and a funeral home (on the ground floor). She and her three siblings had to remain very quiet and out of sight whenever a service was taking place.

‘I can still never hear a phone ring without thinking that someone, somewhere, has died.’

The embalming room may have been out of bounds, but Kate learned a lot about the respectful processes involved for taking care of the dead, and I found those aspects of her memoir interesting to read.

‘I wondered why my father chose to wake up every morning to take care of dead people. But I never asked, for as the years passed, I could imagine him doing nothing else.’

But this memoir is also about life in a small and segregated Kentucky town. How there were different funeral homes depending on the colour of your skin, and how desegregation was resisted by some white residents. Kate, with her crushes on two black boys, rattles the status quo. It’s also about Kate’s discovery that her beloved father was not perfect, and her finding her own way in life. Through her father, Kate forms a deep friendship with Agnes Davis, an eccentrically independent, wealthy, older woman who demonstrates a different way of life. Along the way, there are some tributes to different people, and some interesting observations about life in a small town.

‘It’s the live ones you have to look out for, not the dead.’

I enjoyed this thoughtful memoir, of an unusual and sometimes difficult childhood. It’s well written and interesting.

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read an advance copy of this book.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Penguin Classics Master And Margarita
Penguin Classics Master And Margarita
by Mikhail Bulgakov
Edition: Paperback
Prix : CDN$ 18.00
27 used & new from CDN$ 4.09

5.0 étoiles sur 5 ‘Didn’t you know that manuscripts don’t burn?’, Jan. 14 2015
In Russia, profoundly in the grip of Stalin during the 1930s, the Devil visits two atheists. Add to the mix an assassin, a black cat, Jesus, Pontius Pilate and a naked witch and you have the main ingredients of one of the most amazing novels of the 20th century. Unfortunately, it’s challenging to try to write a coherent review of this novel: it’s a little like trying to fit together pieces of an abstract puzzle.

‘It can’t be! He doesn’t exist!’

There are three distinct elements: Professor Woland’s discussion with Berlioz and the poet known as Bezdomny about the existence of Jesus, the section involving the Master and his lover Margarita, and a novel about Pontius Pilate. The link between this elements? Well, the Devil (in the guise of Professor Woland) challenges Berlioz and Bezdomny’s concepts of atheism, which leads the conversation to the novel about Pilate which was written by the Master.

‘Intelligent people, however, become intelligent by solving complicated problems.’

Simple, right? Only because Mikhail Bulgakov was such an accomplished writer. Action then shifts between Jerusalem, where Pilate wants to free Jesus but has no choice, and Moscow where Berlioz dies, and Bezdomny (whose real name is Ivan) is taken to an asylum. Ivan’s neighbour in the asylum is another writer, known only as the Master. As we shift between Jerusalem and Moscow, the stories start to converge. And when Woland hosts a grand ball with Margarita as his hostess and then grants her a wish, the Master and Margarita are eventually reunited.

No, these words do not do this wonderfully complex, multi-layered story justice. It’s inventive and satirical, it’s brilliant on so many different levels. The book was written between 1928 and 1940, but was not published until 1967. I really don’t understand why it took me until 2014 to read it for the first time.

‘But what happened in Moscow after sunset on that Saturday evening when Woland and his followers left the capital and vanished from Sparrow Hills?’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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